Thursday, February 16, 2012

Time and Quarterbacks and Yesterday

This upcoming fall, Denard Robinson will be a senior. It will be his last year as a Wolverine.

Was this yesterday? It is yesterday like that moment from your childhood, the one that, through some process of by and large senseless mental natural selection, survived the years and became entrenched, a moment so brief--and potentially, probably, trivial--yet definitive of an era.

In 1997, after the Wisconsin game, I remember walking through a Toys R Us parking lot with my parents. The asphalt was wet--I remember this--and I could only think about how good the team had looked--in fact, I think I remember saying "They looked really good"--and what was in store for Michigan, before the BCS and realignment and any other number of post-modern gibberish diluted and sullied the product. This, and I was about to get a toy of some sort. Things were as good as they could be. The wind in my sails was forceful but kind.

I remember watching the 1998 Rose Bowl, a week before my 9th birthday. I was eating Skittles--I remember this, Wild Berry, I think--and watching the action unfold in my Midwestern living room as the Wolverines and Cougars took the field in a sun-soaked Eden, all of which I couldn't truly appreciate but knew was something to be in awe of. Living in the suburbs of Chicago at the time and thus concurrently experiencing the second Bulls 3-peat, I was spoiled. I watched every game expecting the Bulls to win, and they almost always did. When they went 72-10 in the 1995-96 season, each loss seemed a grave indignity by virtue of their infrequency, my reactions then to those losses only matched by my modern-day consternation on Saturdays when Michigan's helmets decided to spot an opponent more than 14 points. It was the closest that the NBA--or any other brand of sport--was ever elevated to and allowed to coexist on the same plane of existence that Michigan football occupied, occupies, and will continue to occupy.

I remember always feeling a sense of unspoken dread whenever the Bulls wore black in those days. Whether backed by fact or not, it always seemed that they would lose when donning the black road uniforms as opposed to the red ones. This relic of superstition survives to this very day, as useless as the appendix. When the Bulls wear black, I reflexively expect defeat. 

I only got to experience the last three years of Jordan's career in Chicago (I hear he played somewhere after that--for the preservation of my idyllic view of that time, I continue to ignore that Pretender arrogating the throne of MJ), but those three years were arguably the longest years of my life. They were three years of unadulterated sports bliss, and they were probably best consumed in the time my life in which they were consumed. Each year was a triumphant march toward what I felt was rightfully Chicago's, and I mean that in the naive way that a child believes it and not an adult's rage-filled insistence that his team deserves and should win it every year in an invocation of Divine Right. The adult could learn something from the child; Divine Right in sports comes from this world and not on high (whether literally on high--a Heaven of sorts where sports is the chief concern--or as a part of an artificial notion of deservedness interwoven within a city's character vis-a-vis its sports teams.

All of this was taken in while Michigan was making its push for the Rose Bowl (and if I had only known about Michigan hockey circa the mid to late nineties, my understanding of how sports fandom is supposed to work might have been irrevocably stunted). Naturally, I was eight, and so the particulars of it all were never there in real time (what I know of that season is a combination of impressionistic recall and retrospective viewing and reading of whatever I can find on the Internet and elsewhere). The year, 1997, was marked in my mind by three things, things which aren't so much plays as they are concepts: Woodson's interception against MSU, Woodson's punt return, and Brian Griese waggles. Now, when a Michigan quarterback play actions and comes the other way, I rise out of my seat, conditioned like Pavlov's dog.

Fandom grows and changes and I don't think that necessarily means that something definitively good or bad is happening in the process. I will say that that time of my fandom--that period between 1996 and 1998--was the greatest era in my relatively brief career as a fan of sports. You would think that the reason for this would be four combined titles won between my two favorite teams at the time--the Michigan football team and the Jordan Bulls--but that is not the case, anymore. As the years have passed and I've been able to more fully appreciate what I had the luck to experience as a kid, the entire thing boils down to one issue. It is a concept that dominates everything around us, whether we choose to be aware of it not. We get older and relative duration is exchanged for clarity.

Time, time, time. It's all about time.


As we get older, Time has a funny way of passing. As children, we are pushed through the fabric of space and time (Space and Time if we want to pretend about any number of things) slowly, as if to ease us into what lies ahead. Take your time, kid. High school and driving and college are all other such things are so far out of the realm of a child's comprehension that they can barely exist. Life is like a water slide: it starts off slow, giving you enough time to understand and enjoy the fact that THIS IS A WATER SLIDE before taking you through swiftly and with less meaning than you might want. 1996-1998 was like the initial part before the precipitous drop, before days shed hours and weeks and months flew by with astonishing speed.

Another watershed moment in my fandom occurred in 2004. Michigan was replacing a significant amount of firepower, of which quarterback was probably the most difficult to immediately replace. As good as Chris Perry was, the quarterback position is in a league of its own, and John Navarre was a good one in his final season despite what many will tell you.

Matt Gutierrez went down and true freshman Chad Henne became the starter. The following January, Michigan found themselves in the Rose Bowl on the heels of remarkable freshman seasons from Henne and a little guy named Hart--to the satisfaction of pun and sports cliche enthusiasts everywhere--and although Michigan had lost to two mediocre to bad teams in Notre Dame and Ohio State (and a Vince Young-led Longhorns team in the Rose Bowl), things were looking good. It was 2004, and we had three more years of this. It would only get better.

A few years later. I was a freshman at Michigan, watching my first game as a student. The senior year, which had been talked about for so long as if it were a Holy Grail, was here. Like Thomas Hobbes's opinion on the nature of life, it was short and brutish. The following season elaborated on this notion.

Then, Denard Robinson burst onto the scene in 2009. Unlike Henne, he had to wait a year before becoming the starting quarterback. A boon and a curse, the year came and went with efficient, heartless speed. This is the crux of the matter. When you get older, when the gravitational pull of life is strong enough to have pulled you into its orbit like the wayward bit of interstellar rock that you are, you are moving too fast for you to truly appreciate everything that is transpiring. Now, there is not enough time to even say that this will never end.

Some things are cynic-proof. 

2010 and 2011 came and went, each replete with their own triumphs and misfortunes. He ran and ran but Time outpaced him. There is only one year left.


Getting older has its negatives, as I've made clear. However, getting older allows the benefit of experience and hindsight. In 2004, I, like many, assumed that some combination of national and conference championships was an inevitability. In doing so, I think many lost the way. By 2007--and after the first two games of that season--there was a sense of dead weight, of a wasted something, an unattained ideal, all while things were happening that were worth really talking about.

Michigan went 11-2 this past season. Denard is now a senior, and Michigan returns much in the form of hope and a promise of the continuation of last year's successes. It is difficult to believe, however, that this will be the last season in which Denard Robinson will lead the Wolverines. When I think about it, I think of his run against Western in 2009, the 2010 ND game, and last year's Ohio game, wondering how it could have possibly happened this fast. Is this really it?

The boon of fandom, post-childhood, is that we can retain and store memories more precise and comprehensive than we could have imagined or been capable of as children. It is a simple fact of biology, and yet, it is the most endearing tool in our favor, as adults rooting for Michigan, attempting to revive the unburdened glow of childhood.

If you haven't started storing these sorts of things, start doing so. You'll wake up soon, January knocking at your door. The snow will be falling, perpendicular to the ground and in step with time, and Denard Robinson no longer playing for the Wolverines will have become a reality. This corporeal January will either scold you or shake your hand for what you've done, how you've handled the in between.

There will never be another Denard Robinson, just like there will never be another Chad Henne or Mike Hart. I made a mistake, in 2004, of establishing expectations, a reasonable projection. Wait till 2007, ad infinitum. 2007 is now, in a way, 2012.

To take on expectations--say, that Michigan won 11 games last season so they should logically win 11 again, or, even more ambitiously, more--is a mistake. It draws attention away from the reality on the field, whatever that may be. We have less than a year left with Denard, an allotment of time that would have once been an eternity. If time insists on moving faster as we slide, we might as well take notes. The curvature of the slide, a mental rendering of its layout in realtime, the exact feeling of the slide--the intermittent harshness and smoothness of it--and the exact moment when the realization that it's over descends, allowing itself to be described and understood as it happens. This is what we can do. It's the only thing to do; to take note, review, and bask in the clarity of memory in formation.


  1. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Dude, if you are this nostalgic at 23, wait till you hit 40 (sub in Rick Leach for Denard). Well written though.